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Open Water

Removing dams from the Hudson Valley's rivers.

Dam removal, River Newsroom, herring
After 85 years, herring returned to Wynants Kill after a dam was removed.
Photo: Erica Capuana/NYSDEC Division of Fish & Wildlife
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“Free-flowing creeks are part of what binds ecosystems together. These waterways are the circulatory system of our landscape.” So begins a short documentary, Undamming the Hudson River, released last year by Jon Bowermaster, a filmmaker and occasional contributor to The River.

The man speaking those words is Dr. George Jackman, a retired NYPD lieutenant turned water ecologist. Through this work with the nonprofit Riverkeeper, Jackman has become one of the leading advocates in a growing moment to remove dams from the Hudson River estuary and restore the waters to their natural, free-flowing state.

There are at least 1,600 dams in the Hudson River estuary watershed between Albany and New York City, according to the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (NYSDEC). About half of the river’s 67 tributaries are dammed. Most are small structures like milldams, installed by factories that have long since closed, and serving no purpose now but to block fish and other aquatic species, impair river ecology, and alter water flow.

For centuries, fish have traversed these tributaries, moving between feeding, nursery, and spawning grounds. When dams block those pathways, the accessible habitat area is reduced, causing ecosystem disruption and population decline among fish.

Removing obsolete dams is one part of the recent efforts by New York State and environmental groups to restore the health of the Hudson River, which for decades was overfished, overdeveloped, and polluted to the point of near-ecological collapse. To that end, in January the state Department of Environmental Conservation announced that it had awarded $1.1 million in grants for six projects to remove or mitigate dams and water barriers. One of them will allow Riverkeeper to dismantle the Strooks Felt Dam on the Quassaick Creek in Orange County, the first of 12 dams on that waterway and a first barrier for fish swimming upstream from the Hudson River. According to the New York Times, “the city of Newburgh plans to raze a second dam as part of a larger infrastructure project. And Dr. Jackman has commitments from at least one other dam owner to greenlight its removal.”

Flowing Free

The drive to undam waterways is not unique to the Hudson Valley. As the Times story linked above notes, environmental groups from coast to coast are advocating for the removal of obsolete dams large and small:

In 2012 and 2013, two enormous dams were demolished on the Penobscot River in Maine, which had seen its fishery all but collapse since the early 1800s. Now fish have returned in droves: Atlantic salmon, alewives, baby eels, shad, and brook trout, to name a few.

On the West Coast, four large dams on the Klamath River, which flows from Southern Oregon into Northern California, are slated for removal by 2022, streamlining some 400 miles of habitat for migratory fish.

On the East Coast, efforts are underway in Connecticut to eliminate obsolete dams from rivers that connect with Long Island Sound.

Nor is the movement limited to the Hudson Valley. In 2016, the Mohawk Tribe won its decades-long struggle to remove the 11-foot-high Hogansburg Dam from the St. Regis River, a waterway of longstanding cultural importance to the Mohawks. According to the Associated Press, the project was the first removal of an operating hydroelectric dam in New York State, and the nation’s first decommissioning of a federally licensed dam by a Native American tribe.

That same year, Riverkeeper, the NYSDEC, and the city of Troy partnered to remove a dam from the Wynants Kill, a Hudson River tributary, restoring a spawning habitat for river herring that had been blocked for 85 years. Within five days, the species had returned to the creek.

Above: an interactive map from Cornell University’s New York State Water Resources Institute showing aquatic barriers in the Hudson River estuary watershed.

It makes a certain sense that this movement by naturalists and conservationists to remove defunct vestiges of the industrial past would find a voice in the Hudson Valley—“the great national arena of the battle between the engineer and the poet,” as the preservationist J. Winthrop Aldrich once described it.

In all, the NYSDEC has committed about $5 million to dam removal in recent years, mostly through its Hudson River Estuary Program. The program is guided by a five-year Action Agenda that provides a conservation and restoration blueprint. The agenda runs through 2020, but it’s just the latest iteration of an action plan that was first approved in 1996 and has been updated five times since. There’s little reason to think it won’t be updated again.

“A river should have its own sinuosity,” Dr. Jackman told the Times. “It should bend and curve and connect with the floodplain. Controlling these rivers is kind of like controlling a wild animal.”

Phillip Pantuso is the editor of The River, and has contributed to the Guardian, the New York Times, and Yes! Magazine. Follow him on Twitter @phillippantuso.